Why Water and Sanitation Matter for Women and Girls

May 6, 2016

Last month, Michelle Obama, speaking at the World Bank event to announce the institution’s new $2.5 billion commitment to invest in girls’ education projects, talked about periods. The First Lady was speaking on behalf of the White House’s Let Girls Learn Initiative, which aims to ensure that adolescent girls around the world get the education they deserve. Mrs. Obama recognized that many barriers exist that prevent girls’ access to education.

She asked, “Why are girls in some parts of the world still missing school because of their menstrual cycles, or made to feel that a woman’s menstruation and sexuality are unacceptable?” Her question highlights one of many ways that women and girls are uniquely affected by a lack of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).

Around the world, 663 million people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion people lack access to sanitation facilities. Lack of access to water and sanitation has negative impacts on all areas of a person’s life, from illness (and possible death) due to preventable waterborne diseases, to time lost to fetching water, and much more. 

Although these impacts are felt by all, women and girls are disproportionately affected. In many parts of the world, women and girls are primarily responsible for the task of collecting water for household use. In Africa and Asia, they walk an average 6km a day to complete this task. When households lack a toilet or latrine, women often delay relieving themselves until night for privacy, but this practice can be harmful to their health. Women and girls also must deal with menstruation and pregnancy, which create additional needs for adequate materials (soap, water, and feminine products) and facilities (toilets, trash disposal, health clinics/hospitals with toilets, water, soap, etc.) to stay clean and free from infections. While lack of access to WASH in and of itself is an issue, it also impacts other areas of girls’ lives.

Education – Girls often spend more time than boys fetching water, which means time away from school and learning. Many schools lack sanitation facilities or have poor options that don’t include separate facilities for boys and girls. Due to inadequate facilities and lack of feminine hygiene products, some girls may miss school during their periods, causing them to fall behind in their studies.

Economics – The chore of fetching water falls primarily to women and girls, limiting the time they have to engage in other productive activities. When family members are sick (waterborne diseases constitute a significant portion of the global disease burden; diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of death for children under 5 years old), women and girls often bear the burden of caring for them, further limiting time for work that might generate income to support their families.

Health – The physical task of fetching water can be extremely taxing – when a typical jerry can (plastic water container) is full, it can weigh more than 40 lbs – and women and girls risk physical injuries from carrying such heavy loads. These risks increase when women are pregnant, yet the task of collecting water remains. When women give birth, adequate WASH is important to prevent infections for both the mother and child, yet a 2015 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that 38 percent of health facilities don’t have access to an improved source of water.


Plan International recognizes the challenges facing women and girls when they are unable to access water, sanitation, and hygiene, and is working to address these issues through a variety of approaches.  For example:

  • In Zimbabwe, Plan worked with communities to improve water and sanitation access in schools, so that students would no longer have to leave to fetch water and girls would have separate toilets with the space needed to effectively manage their periods.
  • In Uganda, Plan partners with a local social enterprise, AFRIpads, which makes reusable sanitary pads. Through this partnership, distributors and sales agents were engaged and trained to sell the pads at the community level, which has improved access to pads in the project areas. Plan also worked with girls and their communities to increase awareness of menstrual hygiene management and reduce stigma around menstruation.
  • In Ethiopia, Plan is addressing the barriers that prevent girls from accessing quality education, including lack of water, sanitation, and hygiene. Plan and its partners improved school latrines and water systems, built hand-washing facilities, and distributed feminine hygiene products.  Plan also partnered with Be Girl, a social enterprise developing reusable menstrual products, on a pilot to ensure that the products were responsive to girls’ needs.

Throughout the lifecycle of a girl, access to water, sanitation, and hygiene, or a lack thereof, can have a significant impact on her well-being, dignity, and ability to reach her full potential. Plan is committed to improving the lives of girls and women and addressing the significant barriers that they face. As Mrs. Obama so rightly pointed out, addressing girls’ lack of access to WASH can have ripple effects in other parts of their lives, such as the opportunity to complete their education.. Here at Plan we could not agree more, period.